Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Adventures of Mark Twain - 1944




“The Adventures of Mark Twain” (1944) features a central figure so familiar as to be legendary, and the film leans heavy on legend.  We mark tomorrow’s anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth.
What we discover about Mark Twain through this movie is not so much facts about his life (particularly when the facts are toyed with and not in the order of their appearance), but rather how he fits into, and even represents, the grand mosaic of 19th century American culture.  This is a rich story of a vibrant era. 
We are also treated to the rarely-presented world of history through literature. 
Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Longfellow, Whittier, Emerson, Rudyard Kipling all parade before us.  They are cameos, but they are presented as giants.  I particularly like that the film expects us to know who they are. 
A modern film might throw the answers to an ignorant audience the way a fellow student slips test answers to a pal beside him, which is ignominious, and unflattering both to ourselves and the great writers.
Mark Twain’s greatest struggle, apart from money worries, is to measure up to these literary lions.  That he finds his own place in popular literature and that the 20th century lauds him with movies and stage plays and television programs, and does not do so for the aforementioned first-string players — this would astonish Twain more than anyone.
This is a film more of style than of substance, and for those dismissive of it I would suggest they consider that in classic film, a biopic is less like a Ken Burns documentary and more like an interpretive dance.
Yes, I am being facetious.
The movie is a series of events like tall tales, and even the introduction to the film cheekily warns us not to be too judgmental.  First we are on a hill watching Halley’s Comet awe and terrify the townspeople as Samuel Langhorne Clemens is born into this world.  He will joke repeatedly throughout his life that he came in with the comet and will surely leave the earth when the comet is due to return in the next century.  In a life of quips and witticisms, and wry observations, that he actually did die on the occasion when Halley’s returned in 1910 is probably the biggest joke of all.
But a lot happened in the meantime, and the movie is stuffed with scenes that roll out a long carpet of experiences and adventures.  The director plunks us down in the 19th century with beautifully staged settings, many of them artful miniatures, of the majestic Mississippi, its riverbanks bathed in moonlight.  We see the long gambling salon on the riverboat (too long to be realistic, but this isn’t a documentary, it’s a pop-up book), and the lordly riverboats that young Sam so admires.
We know he took his eventual pen name, “Mark Twain” from the call of the riverboat men who are testing the depths of the water for channels deep enough for the riverboats to pass safely.  Two fathoms is a safe depth, so when they mark “twain” on the measure, it is two fathoms.  The sing-song call, “MARR-R-K…T-W-A-A-A-I-I-N-N!” is used stirringly at dramatic moments, and is replicated in notes on the musical score of the film, a clever reprise.
Unlike most movies about great men, Mark Twain is not shown as a man born to greatness.  On the contrary, he’s a stumblebum who runs off to join a riverboat crew because he can’t stand working in his brother’s print shop setting type by hand.  (His aversion will later move him to invest, disastrously, in an early mechanical typesetter.)  He runs off to the western mining camps to get rich, and doesn’t.  He delivers a stand-up routine at a dinner for the aforementioned literary giants, and, trying too hard to be funny, insults them in a kind of Friar’s roast.  His act tanks and we see his panic as he makes a fool of himself.  We begin to wonder if this guy will ever do anything right.
His one stroke of luck seems to be catching a glimpse of a fellow traveler’s photo of a beloved sister.  Twain falls in the love with the picture, and eventually the woman, who as his wife will help him achieve lasting success as a writer.
Twain has a lower estimation of his talents, and wants to write something great and important, but the audience sees, even if Twain does not, that the body of his work adds up to a chronicling of America in its most expansive, confident, chest-thumping and stumblebum charm.
Fredric March, who we last saw in "I Married a Witch" (1942), is the adult Mark Twain, in a spot-on performance.  It can’t be easy creating a character so well known, and relying in good part on mimicry and imitation.  It’s a tightrope to walk.  With the help of makeup man Perc Westmore, Mr. March is the very image of Mark Twain.  One of the fine achievements of this movie is the way the characters, Twain in particular, age so gradually and so realistically we may feel amazed by the end of the film that so much time has passed.  The aging of characters in other films of this era is usually something of a jolt, and artificial-looking. 
Alexis Smith plays his wife, and though we may note it’s another woman-behind-the-great-man role where she has little challenge, it’s still a nice piece for her.  This is a much softer role in contrast to the sophisticates she often played, and with little makeup in the early scenes, her natural beauty is quite lovely, more stunning than her glamour roles.

Miss Smith is a one-woman cheerleading squad for Mark Twain, but in real life Mrs. Clemens did more than just encourage him.  She actually edited most of his work and he came to rely on her judgment.
Alan Hale is along for the ride as Twain’s prospector pal in his patented jovial scamp gig.  John Carradine gets a marvelous brief scene as the writer Bret Harte who, in the famed contest between the jumping frogs, exhorts his frog, “Daniel Webster” with the plea, “If you love me…”  And repeated calls, “Flies!  Flies!” to encourage the magnificent amphibian to hop.  I don’t know if Mr. Carradine ever played a scene so intense with a human.
Donald Crisp is at Twain’s elbow as his manager, who also gets the impressive aging treatment.  Walter Hampden is great as Alexis Smith’s disapproving father in a scene where he tries to remove Twain from his home.
C. Aubrey Smith delivers a magnificent address at the end of the film when Mark Twain is honored at Oxford.  His scene is a standout.  That beautifully craggy face and his meticulous speech.
Joyce Reynolds, who we last saw in “The Constant Nymph”(1943), plays Twain’s daughter, Clara, horrified at spotting the return of Halley’s Comet.
A few scenes of note:  I love when the teenaged Samuel Clemens is getting his first lesson in piloting a riverboat by grumpy Robert Barrat.  Dickie Jones is the youth, who has very few lines, but the scene is marvelous.  It runs quite a long time, with close-ups on the boy’s face as he nervously reacts to the dangers of the river and Mr. Barrat’s constant barking at him. 
He’s shaking in his shoes, and when at last he manages to pull into a safe channel and the crewman sings, “M-A-A-R-R-RK…T-W-A-A-I-I-N-N-N!” we see the tears glisten in his dark velvet eyes with wonder and gratitude, and love of this river.  I don’t suppose it’s necessary to the story as a whole, but I imagine director Irving Rapper kept the attention focused on Dickie Jones for so long because he fell in love with the boy like I did.  I think it’s one of the most powerful close-ups I’ve ever seen.
The anxious expression in his soft boy’s face, on the verge of manhood.  We last saw Dickie as a much younger child in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) where he played the congressional page.
The scene where Mark Twain does one of his very first public speaking jobs.  Look at the hall filled with extras, and look at their costumes.  Such attention to the style and setting of an era is wonderful.  There don’t seem to be many shortcuts taken, as we sometimes see in other films where the sets or costumes, or hair is judged by the studio evidently as being “close enough.”
We may gag at Twain’s grotesque, “well done, good and faithful servant” joke, and note how African-Americans, particularly the unfortunate Willie Best as a butler, get the stereotypical treatment in this film.  However, there is an aspect to their presence in this movie that I admire, and that is that they are indeed present.  We see them on hill watching Halley’s Comet, and as passengers on the riverboat.  They work on the river, and live on the river, and they are the boys on the raft.  If their story is not told yet, at least we see they are not invisible.  We see they are part of the mosaic that makes up America.  For Hollywood at this time, this is something.
We get a glimpse of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford.  See my post on my New England Travels blog for more on his home, which still stands a museum today.  This weekend, another actor famed for portraying Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook, will be honored at the Mark Twain House when a hall is dedicated in his name. 
As Mark Twain’s life unfolds it gets busier.  He and his wife lose a baby son.  They have three daughters.  He travels the world to earn money to pay back debts.  He saves the fortunes of Ulysses S. Grant when the former Union general and President is dying of cancer, and struggles to write his memoirs to provide for his family.  Twain, in his own fledgling company, publishes them.
March has a moving scene when he sings “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” at the piano as his wife lay dying.  Decades later in an interview Alexis Smith noted that Fredric March’s work in this movie was underrated.  In an article at the time of filming, she commented that she had a hard time, even though she was supposed to be dead, to keep from peeking at March to watch him in his scene.
Back to the pop-up book nature of the movie — the scenes where tiny figures of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Jim superimposed on the written page, or revisit Twain at the moment of his death and take him by the hand to a distant sunset are imagery we would not see in a biopic today. 
But this is a tale, not a documentary.  It captures the mood and the tragedy, and optimism of this man’s era.  We may be witnessing more Currier and Ives than Vital Records, but that is the nature of interpretive dance.
Remember also that during World War II the movies were reaching back to a comfortable American image to appeal to a frightened audience.  Twain’s speech, “our tolerance will never become indifference, and our freedom never come license.  Let’s respect each other’s rights…” reflects not only his progressive views, as cantankerously as he sometimes phrased them, but also speaks to a nervous America on the precipice of doom.
For more on “The Adventures of Mark Twain” have a look at Cliff Aliperti’s two posts on his terrific Immortal Ephemera blog here and here.  The movie was filmed in 1942, but not released until 1944.  For a more detailed explanation why, have a look at Harold Sherman’s “Behind theScreenplay” here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thanksgiving leftovers...




Joseph Cotten snacks on a leftover leg from the icebox in “Since You Went Away” (1944).  Claudette Colbert is about to get him a glass of milk.  Today we acknowledge the post-Thanksgiving tradition of leftovers.
Being thankful for one’s blessings softens the otherwise somewhat obscene nature of a holiday where we do nothing but eat until we are sick.  And then enjoy leftovers for days afterward.  In a world where millions go hungry, we surely must also be thankful that we have leftovers that last for days.

Alexis Smith seems thankful to have that turkey leg here in “One More Tomorrow” (1946).  That’s Dennis Morgan pouring her a cocktail.  I, too, like to eat leftovers in evening clothes, wearing white opera gloves as I chow down on a turkey leg.  A gentleman in white tie and tails pouring me champagne is one of the things I am most thankful for.

My word, but she’s enjoying that turkey leg.  She gnaws on it all during the conversation like a junkyard dog.
 
Even when debating on who gets the next dance, Jack Carson or John Loder, she still lugs around that turkey leg, seemingly unwilling to part with it just to fox trot.  Oh, what to do?


We’ll visit with Alexis on Thursday when we celebrate the anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth in “The Adventures of Mark Twain” (1944), starring Fredric March.  One hopes she’ll have done eating by then and we can get down to business.


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving


This is to wish all American followers of this blog a Happy Thanksgiving.  Curly of The Three Stooges helped me in the kitchen this morning getting the turkey stuffed. 

Just a reminder that my humorous short story, "Constancy" is still FREE on Amazon for today and tomorrow.

And today begins a FREE run for the next five days for my recently published States of Mind: New England book of essays and photographs on New England history.  Help yourself and Happy Thanksgiving.

Did I ever tell you about the time I was nearly crushed by a giant balloon during a Thanksgiving parade?

It wasn't Macy's parade in New York, though I've attended that one as well, which I enjoyed very much and was not threatened by any balloon in any way.

This occurred in another city which with ladylike discretion I shall not name.  It happened years ago (cue film noir flashback scene), when my twin brother and I were barely out of our teens.  We had watched this parade, and when it ended, and a sea of humanity flooded the streets from all directions, I paused, wondering which was the best way to go to get back to where we parked the car.
Nearby a grand set of steps leading to a kind of raised piazza seemed to be a good place to stand to get our bearings over the crowd.  As we puzzled the situation, we noticed a dark shadow spread over us.  It had been a sunny day, and this sudden darkening seemed ominious.  I looked to the sky for rain.

Directly above us was the large bottom of Felix the Cat.  Descending upon us.  Apparently, the very spot we had chosen to stand was the place where they were deflating Felix to put him back in a truck.

Have you ever heard that expression, "paralyzed with laughter"?  It seems odd that someone could actually be paralyzed by laughter, but that is exactly what happened.  Brother John and I were so overcome with fits of laughing, that we couldn't move, while Felix's giant plastic fanny came nearer and nearer, soon to obliterate us.

I shudder at the thought of the undignified headline announcing our tragic death.

At the last possible moment, we managed to gather our wits and our remaining strength, and stumble out of danger just as Felix plopped down on the piazza like a toddling baby who plops down, bottom first, on his well-padded diaper when his chubby legs give out.

It is a scenario I play over in my mind every Thanksgiving when I see those giant balloons on TV.

Happy Thanksgiving.





Monday, November 19, 2012

States of Mind: New England



 
This is to announce the publication of STATES OF MIND: NEWENGLAND, a collection of essays from my New England Travels blog, which has reached its fifth anniversary this autumn.
The smashing cover was created by Casey Koester, your friend and mine from the blog, Noir Girl.
The book has nearly 200 photographs.  It covers events and experiences from the early 19th century through the middle of the 20th century.  It’s currently available on Kindle (with a move toward other ebook publishers in the new year) and the paperback version will be on sale in December.  It’s going to be a coffee table-sized 8½x11 book, so I wouldn’t call it a stocking stuffer, but it could make a nice holiday gift.
The Kindle version will be offered FREE for five days only starting this Thursday, Thanksgiving, and running through Monday, November 26th.   Have a look and see what you think.  After that, it goes back to its list price of $7.99.
Here’s a blurb from the foreword:
This is a collection of essays I posted on my New England Travels blog (and a couple from another blog on theatre: Tragedy and Comedy in New England), which at the time of this publishing has just passed its fifth year.  Some of the articles were also previously published in magazines and newspapers. 

This book is a small slice of New England Travels, but there are no travelogue posts here, no photos of lighthouses or covered bridges.  Perhaps that might do for a future volume.  This book is not about New England the place as much as it is about New England the idea, and the ideas that came out of New England, specifically events that happened in the 19th century that shot us into the 20th century.

The photo on the cover is of the Mark Twain statue that stands in front of the library in Hartford, Connecticut where he made his home in later years and wrote his most famous novels.  It’s a good image, and a good metaphor for what this book holds for the reader: a titan of American literature, and in the rugged image hewn in bronze, a representation of the artistry and industry of this region.  I like how the 19th century figure is flanked by the modern 20th century steel-and-glass Hartford Public Library. 

“My subject is the New England mind, as it has found expression in the lives and works of writers,” Van Wyck Brooks wrote in his preface to The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, which like its sequel, New England: Indian Summer 1865-1915, has gone out of fashion as literary criticism, but that did not stop me from enjoying them in younger years.  My subject, too, is the New England mind, but though some writers are represented here, such as Louisa May Alcott, they are not given preference over industrialists or inventors, or soldiers.  All are presented in the context of greater things going on around them, or greater things yet to be.

Alcott is shown not as the famous author of Little Women, but as a young Civil War nurse.  Francis Lowell is shown not just as one of the founders of America’s industrial revolution, but in the context of how that revolution gave women a rise in society and economic and political power.  He was the first, after all, to give preference in hiring women over men in his mills, ostensibly so that he could pay them less. 

Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller are not presented as Teacher and her severely handicapped pupil, but as a New Englander and a Southerner whose partnership was the first and most successful union between North and South after the Civil War.

Melzar Mosman, largely forgotten as one of the foremost founders of bronze statuary in this country, is shown not just as the foundryman, artist, and sculptor, but as a Union Army private, an experience he would re-live with every bronze statue of a solider standing picket duty that came out of his foundry to find a home on town commons across New England, and of generals across America.  Mr. Mosman, incidentally, will be the subject of a future book.

The 19th century chapters seem to illustrate the spawning of ideas and inventions which made history; the 20th century seems to show us reacting to events, like hurricanes, and juggling consequences. In the 19th century, through the Industrial Revolution, we drew upon a new workforce (women), and created a market for manufactured goods.  In the early 20th century—we shopped—in grand, family-owned department stores just as paternalistic as the factories of the previous century.

These then are slices of New England, not just the place, but the idea and social movement, and the force that largely determined what America would be like in the 19th and 20th centuries.  You can find its representation in the bricks and mortar of a factory building, or in the hobnailed boots of the mill girl who found both exhaustion and independence there. 
 
In other news, my short story, "Constancy" is going free for the next few days on Amazon.  You can download it here if you like.

Thank you for your kind attention.  Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Horse Feathers - 1932




“Horse Feathers” (1932) is about winning a college football game. You have to remind yourself of that from time to time, because so much else happens in the maelstrom of Marx Brothers shenanigans, that football seems hardly the issue. What is the issue? Everything, and nothing.

Groucho, the default leader of the group, is newly arrived college dean at a school dying to beef up its football program, because after all, that’s what college is all about. There’s nothing more important than football. I suppose I could interject a line here about Penn State, but we’ll just let that go.

Although, Groucho would not have let that go.

Zeppo, the handsome, singing, otherwise comically untalented brother, plays Groucho’s college boy son. He spends a good part of the movie chasing the lovely Thelma Todd, who I think we last saw here in “Bargain of the Century” (1933). Unfortunately, as is the case in Marx Brothers movies, Thelma does not really get to show off her marvelous comedic talent; instead she can do little more than react to their antics. This was her second film with the boys, however; she also appeared with them in “Monkey Business” the previous year.

Thelma plays a “college widow”, aka, a vamp, who in this case is trying to obtain the team’s secret plays using her feminine wiles. There are moments, such a very funny canoe ride with Groucho, where she is less than subtle about her objectives.

Harpo is a dogcatcher, and Chico works at a speakeasy. Which you cannot enter unless you know the password, SWORDFISH.

It’s pretty neat that Harpo peels a banana as if it had zippers on either side. In the early 1930s, zippers were just beginning to be used in some clothing, but hadn’t really been used widely by manufacturers in until the end of the decade.

I also like the way Harpo orders a scotch in the speakeasy by pantomiming a highland fling.

We have another topical reference when Thelma tumbles out of the canoe and pleads Groucho to throw her a lifesaver. Of course, he throws the candy. And the “Jumping Anaconda!” line which refers to the stock that dropped like lead during the Crash.

Harpo and Chico are recruited to kidnap the star players of the rival school, but are kidnapped themselves instead. By the end of the film, they are recruited as students to play on the team, with hilarious results.

The songs are melodic, and silly. When Chico gets a chance to show off his piano playing and Harpo gets a really lovely harp solo, some movie fans feel that this brings the action to a grinding halt, but it is for this very reason that I like the musical solos. It’s a moment of calm in the storm that is incongruous because everything about the Marx Brothers is incongruous. That they are so talented musically seems just another absurd thing about them. A harp solo in the middle of chaos doesn’t fit; and for that reason according to the Marx Brothers doctrine, it fits.

Still, in case we fidget, Groucho breaks the fourth wall while Chico has his piano solo and tells the audience, “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.”

Oh yeah, and then there’s football. Have a look here at the climax of the big game, where, naturally, anything goes.









Monday, November 12, 2012

And the Mystery Dentist and Patient are....


Congratulations to Laura who knew it was "Footsteps in the Dark" (1941) with Ralph Bellamy and Errol Flynn.  Have a look for our previous discussion of the movie.
 

Dentists did not routinely wear gloves when I was growing up.  I believe that practice started in the 1980s, possibly related to evolving hygienic protocols during the AIDS scare.  Maybe some of you could dispute or corroborate that. 

I don't suppose the intruments in Errol's mouth are sterile.   (Not that they wouldn't have been in a real dentist's office, but I suspect the prop guy on the set did not posses an autoclave.)


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mystery Patient and Dentist


Who is the dentist and his mystery patient?  What movie?  Why isn't he wearing sterile gloves?  Answers on Monday.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington - 1939




“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) has grown to legendary status. It represents an icon of 20th Century American popular culture. It stands tall among the giants of that pantheon of 1939 films. It generated great controversy at its release, but today, though it enjoys restoration and placement in the Library of Congress as a film of significance, it is perhaps seen in the soft nostalgic glow as just another example of “Capra-corn.”


Its simplicity is both its greatest dramatic asset and its singular fault among critics. That is the dichotomy of any Capra film. Paradox is the order of the day. Just a few examples:

This movie was banned both in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union for showing the American democratic process in a positive light. However, this film was roundly criticized by Washington as showing senators in a negative light and the political process as being rife with corruption. They wanted it banned, too.

The movie shows corruption in Congress, but no political party is ever named. Claude Rains plays the senior senator, who has compromised his integrity for graft, and James Stewart plays the junior senator from the same state. We do not know with which party they are affiliated. We do not even know which state they are from, but since the story is partly based on a book which named Montana as the home state, the senator from Montana walked out on this movie at its preview at Constitution Hall in Washington. Many other senators were no-shows in protest.

Art reflects life, as we realize the main message of this film is the crime of arrogance. Politics is rife with it. Both political parties are guilty. Graft is graft, no matter who does it.

And it’s easy see how Capra both pulled away and exploited the combustible nature of politics in this film. We take politics personally. We cringe and get our backs up when we hear an opposing political viewpoint. That is human nature. How we behave about how we feel is what makes us ladies and gentlemen…or thugs.

Politics is also rife with idealism, sometimes pure and hopeful in its natural state; sometimes exploited in creative political ads meant to play on the emotions of the public and how well they respond to dramatic backlighting of a candidate in his shirtsleeves superimposed over a waving flag. It’s hokey, and it’s still being done. The arrogance of politicians in believing we are really that stupid.

Director Frank Capra was a conservative Republican. The scriptwriter, Sidney Buchman, was a Communist Party member between 1938 and 1945. Yet, they shared ideals and vision for this movie. (Buchman would be blacklisted in the 1950s when he refused to name names.)

Most of those shots of Washington buildings and monuments were taken on the sly; the United States Parks Service denied the filmmaker access.

One more paradox: despite this canon of idealistic films of Capra’s, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is actually quite a dark movie, sinister and cynical. James Stewart is the only Pollyanna of the bunch, and by the end of the movie even he gets his teeth kicked in.

Long post ahead. You’ve come this far. It would be a shame to turn back now.

We begin the movie with that heartthrob Charles Lane as a reporter, holed up in a phone booth barking in his sexy nasal twang about the sudden death of a senator and the need for his state to send an immediate replacement.

Only a truly great movie would start the show with Charles Lane.

We learn right off the bat that Edward Arnold, the prototype of the greedy corporate thief, runs his state with an iron hand and a bottomless wallet. Guy Kibbee is the harried governor, who asks “How high?” when Mr. Arnold tells him to jump, much to the chagrin of his wife, Ruth Donnelly, and his large family of children. The kids suggest James Stewart as a replacement senator. Stewart runs the Boy Rangers (because the Boy Scouts of America didn’t want to touch this film with a ten-foot pole), and publishes a boys’ newspaper and recently heroically fought a forest fire.


Edward Arnold is great in this film, with his voice kept low and sneering. If he bellowed and blustered it would not be half so chilling as that snide, quiet confidence he displays.

One of the real delights of this film is spotting the character actors. Porter Hall and Grant Mitchell are senators, Jack Carson gets a couple lines as a reporter. Lafe McKee (who we discussed in this previous post) gets a brief, but iconic moment in this film when he stands before the Lincoln Memorial helping his little grandson to pronounce the difficult words in the Gettysburg Address, which is engraved in stone on the building.

As he says the word “freedom”, we get a shot of an elderly African-American man standing nearby, who has removed his hat in respect for Honest Abe. If this man is over 77 years old, he might have been born a slave. Politics is personal.

Eugene Pallette is on board as Edward Arnold’s right-hand man. Catch the scene where Pallette struggles to get his large body out of a phone booth. Dub Taylor, who we last saw in “Cowboy Canteen” (1944), is a wisecracking reporter who is part of a gang that interviews a bewildered James Stewart upon his arrival in Washington. You might even catch a glimpse of a young Craig Stevens as a reporter in the Senate chamber gallery writing fast and furious with a pencil.

Dickie Jones, the young Senate page who helps out Stewart, you’ve likely seen in many films.

Much of this movie, when it really works well, hinges on the magnificent Jean Arthur. Her performance is transcendent. She is secretary to Claude Rains, and has seen enough of Washington’s seamy side to stamp out any idealism she once might have had. As she tells Rains, “When I came here my eyes were big blue question marks. Now they’re big green dollar marks.”

She is assigned to babysit James Stewart, whom she first regards with eye-rolling bemusement tinged with disdain. Gradually, however, her own latent idealism is re-ignited under his slow-talking, sincere, nervous charm. He tells her about the beauty of his state, and his father, a small-town newspaper publisher who was murdered for standing up to a mining company, and how his father told him to look with wonder at life around him and “Always try to live as if you’ve just gotten out of a tunnel.”

She is moved, in spite of her own misgivings and fear of being duped. You can see all of that in her delicate expression, her sense of breathlessness, and we watch her falling in love with him. As we’ve discussed before, Jean Arthur had a remarkable ability to play pathos and comedy right at the same time. I can’t think of anybody else who could work as well at this deceptively complex role, with perhaps the exception of Barbara Stanwyck. Jean Arthur’s faith in politics and mankind is rekindled, and then dashed again as her heart is broken when James Stewart becomes the prey of Edward Arnold and his machine.

Stewart gets himself targeted when he proposes a bill, with Jean Arthur’s help, to create a national boys’ camp where boys from all walks of life, races and creeds, can come together. The land he chooses is the spot Edward Arnold wants and has been sneakily buying up under false names. Claude Rains, the “Silver Knight”, a respected senator who has been kept in office for decades by allowing himself to be Mr. Arnold’s stooge, must now crush James Stewart on the orders of his boss. He even dangles his society snob daughter, played by Astrid Allwyn, in front of Stewart as a diversion.

Jean Arthur, who knows all of this, is heartsick. One of her best scenes is in the press club bar with pal Thomas Mitchell, as she self-medicates her pain with booze. She and Mitchell also played confidantes that same year in “Only Angels Have Wings” discussed here. Frank Capra, quoted in Frank Capra-The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride (Simon & Schuster, NYC, 1992), p. 417 - “I defy any other actress to play that scene,” Capra marveled, “She’s a great actress, much better than she knows. She made it believable with little things, like the way she tried to pick up her glass and didn’t know which glass she was picking up.”

During this scene she tipsily mourns sending James Stewart off to the Senate with a bill that was going to make him a target of the bad guys: “I felt just like a mother sending her kid off to school for the first time. Watching the little fellow toddling off in his best bib and tucker. Hoping he can stand up to the other kids.” It’s hysterical, and heartbreaking at the same time.

Though I think my favorite line is when Thomas Mitchell, in her apartment looking for stuff to mix cocktails, asks her where the bitters are. She replies absently, “In the thing there. Behind the thing.”

At her drunken scene, she accepts Mitchell’s longstanding marriage proposal as a way to escape Washington and the hypocrisy around her. In Jean Arthur - The Actress that Nobody Knew (Limelight Editions, NYC, 1997), p. 116 - author John Oller quotes Howard Hawks, who directed Mitchell and Miss Arthur in “Only Angels Have Wings”, remarking of Arthur’s work in this scene, “That was a beautifully-done thing.”

Jean is quoted explaining the scene, “The trouble about a woman being drunk is you have to be careful not to go overboard because then it’s not funny…A man can be awfully funny when he’s drunk but not a woman.”

Still a little drunk, she and Mitchell head back to her office so she can clean out her desk (her stuff, comically, includes a large rag doll). She runs into Mr. Stewart there, and vents her anger at him for being so gullible. She clues him in on the facts of life, how he is being used, and how the bad guys are playing him for a sap. When she marches out, she stops, as if overwhelmed by her own misery, and leans on the wall out in the empty hallway. Thomas Mitchells hovers by her, concerned. Her back to us, she sobs with her head against the wall and we see, as does Thomas Mitchell, that there will be no marriage between them, that she is in love with Stewart, and that she is hopelessly afraid for him. It’s wordlessly eloquent, all done with body movement.

Two more brief moments I love: When she sleepily awakes, still sitting in the Senate gallery to watch him below standing alone in the middle of the night during his filibuster reading softly from the Bible, “and the greatest of these is charity.” Also when she sends him a love note tucked inside a bound copy of the Constitution.

James Stewart grows up a lot now. He sees the corruption, confronts Claude Rains and tries to spill the beans in Congress. He is silenced when Rains pulls a fast one on him and accuses him of corruption instead. Stewart gets pilloried. Jean Arthur finds him, at last, with his suitcases prepared to leave town, sitting before the Lincoln Memorial at night, crying with that bewildered pain we suffer when people, whether it’s the kids on the playground, our coworkers, or our family, have rejected us.

Just as Jean Arthur was so perfect for her role, I don’t think any other actor would have done as well in his part as James Stewart. Capra had originally hoped to use Gary Cooper in an extension of his “Mr. Deeds” role, but that fell through. Cooper was great, and Jean Arthur loved working with him, had a crush on him, but Cooper’s innocent heroes had something yet sly and knowing about them. Stewart is completely at the mercy of his own unthinking exuberance.

Jean Arthur saves him. She coaches him through a filibuster from her perch in the gallery of the Senate chamber. It’s a terrific showdown, a gunfight with ideals and stubbornness rather than six-shooters.

As Stewart’s voice grows hoarse through the weary hours of his filibuster, Edward Arnold tries to spin lies in the press to their home state, telling the public only what he wants them to know, faster than you can say Fox News.

These scenes are where Capra, in another paradox, both captures the emotions of the audience but also loses believability when small newsboys on the side of James Stewart are used to convey the David versus Goliath aspect. I suppose it’s difficult to find imagery to support the nobility of the common man without getting hokey. It’s difficult sometimes for Capra, anyway.

I get a kick out of real radio newsman H.V. Kaltenborn used here, standing in front of a mic, narrating the magnitude of the moment. Waxing eloquent with the few minutes allotted him in days when live news was in its infancy. Today we have hack media personalities -- I hesitate to call them journalists -- telling us about the latest poll or topic trending on Twitter. And the overuse by CNN of “breaking news” with asinine repetition to hijack our attention over topics which are neither news nor breaking.

Many of us remember a time when the announcement “Special Report” was given sparingly and only for really big news. Our stomachs turned when we heard it because it usually followed with the first reports of an assassination.

But Mr. Kaltenborn stands at his post, using proper English and trying to give the circus some dignity, instead of trying to turn something dignified into a circus.


The Senate chamber scenes are wonderful. A replica was created on the Columbia lot. The pageboy explains to Stewart, and to us, who sits where, and the history and significance of the setting. In many scenes, we may note that many of the desks are empty -- a silent gesture showing that our senators are not always on the job.

I love the shots of Jean Arthur in the gallery throwing signs to Stewart like a catcher to a pitcher to guide him through the filibuster process.

There is some strong imagery in the Senate chamber. We see Claude Rains and the other senators filmed from the floor to the ceiling so they look like giants. We see shots down from the ceiling at the menagerie of “senators” and extras looking small as they fill the room, a tight cluster of humanity. The arrogance of the senators when they turn their backs to Stewart as he speaks.

The climax is strangely quiet. Claude Rains directs the pageboys to carry in baskets of telegrams from an angry public denouncing James Stewart because of the lies they have been fed by Edward Arnold. It’s almost like that glorious scene in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1946) when the letters to Santa arrive. But these scraps of paper do not save Mr. Stewart. They condemn him.

He first looks heavenward, a Christ-like figure as if to say, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” Then he locks his gaze on Harry Carey, who is sublime as President of the Senate, smiling through his fingers as he tries to mask his bemusement at Stewart through previous scenes. He is a kind of craggy-faced Will Rogers type character whose eloquence is not in his quips, but in his expression.

Mr. Carey gives him a gentle smile of encouragement, and Mr. Stewart finds the will to continue despite it being a lost cause. James Stewart is triumphant in this moment, not because he has won, but because he has fought the good fight.

I find the ending is where Frank Capra loses us again in a saccharine solution. Claude Rains, overcome by his conscience, hysterically confesses his guilt. Convenient, but unlikely. We know too well that people in office rarely admit guilt. Especially if it would lead to a conviction.

Claude Rains is fascinating to watch in the film. He has a complex role and his evolution is just as important as Stewart’s or Arthur’s. He is a man of ideals who gave up most of them in order to survive in the Washington jungle.

Early on in the film, a banquet is held to welcome Stewart to political life, and Mr. Rains is surprised to discover that Stewart is the son of his old friend. He leans over the dais to spy Stewart’s mother, the lovely Beulah Bondi, who exchanges a look of fond reminiscence. Here is where we first see that Rains has an honest past, and this is where his struggle of conscience begins. He carries the burden through the film.

We see a lot of father-son imagery in the movie: between Rains and Stewart, between Stewart and his Boy Rangers, with the pageboy, between Harry Carey and Stewart.

The first time I went to Washington, D.C. as a young woman and stood in the visitors’ gallery of the Senate chamber, I could not help but think of how it looked in “Mr. Smith.” It was one of many trips. Washington, D.C. is a place I never get tired of visiting. One can feel cynical and still be inspired.

Despite its occasional hokey sentimentality, these are the real truths expressed in this movie. Jean Arthur reminds a disgusted Stewart that, “They aren’t all Taylors and Paines in Washington. That kind just throw big shadows, that’s all.”

Another truth is Claude Rains’ dismissal of the people voting him out when they learn of the corruption: “You can’t count on people voting. Half the time they don’t vote anyway.”

We get heartily sick of the nastiness of political campaigns, especially when they seem to last so long. But it is a good thing, I think, that we air our grievances so publicly and that other nations can see our anger and discontent. Because they also see that it all leads to election day. No coups, no hanging or shooting the opposing party when you’ve won and they’ve lost. The winners take office. At the end of the term, we vote again. Like clockwork. It’s that splendid confidence in our own system that drove both Nazi Germany and the USSR to ban this movie. It was our suspicion of our own leaders that drove Washington insiders to criticize this film at its premiere. Trust and suspicion, in healthy doses. A marvelous paradox Frank Capra didn’t create, but was clever enough to appreciate.

This movie, despite, or because of, its sentimentality has inspired many over the decades. It was one of my mother’s favorite movies, and she presented it to me as a kind of civics lesson. When the reporters rush from the Senate chamber shouting, “Filibuster! Filibuster!”, I recall my mother echoing, “Filibuster!” excitedly when I saw it the first time on TV, grinning, urging me to see what happens next. She was one of the most politically astute people I ever knew. Though neither of my parents were joiners of causes, they learned early the intimate place politics had in their lives when as children the programs like the CCC and the WPA created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved their lives.

Growing up in poor families, President Roosevelt literally kept them from starving and gave them job training and hope for the future. They never took politics for granted after that. It was personal. The most important program in my house was the news. They devoured news magazines and newspapers, and we watched conventions like some people watched the World Series.

When they got ready to go vote, my father shaved. My mother put on makeup. Reading glasses, check. Notes on specific ballot questions, check. They announced with almost theatrical dignity, “We Are Going to Vote,” as if they were about to save the world.  Being able to vote gives you a great sense of power.  Ask anybody who can't.

We were to be good until they got back from saving the world.

I am voting tomorrow because that is what I was raised to do. Because my mother loved “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. Because my mother, rest her soul, who never had a driver’s license or a passport, were she living today would be denied the right to vote by some politicians who are aching to get a whip-smart, no nonsense liberal like her off the books.

And because like James Stewart in the movie, I get all choked up when I visit the monuments in Washington, D.C.